More than anti-EU, Nigel Farage is anti-establishment – and that’s where his real appeal lies

After these debates with Nick Clegg, the Ukip leader has to be taken seriously

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Let us pause for a moment, reflect and be grateful. The UK has just had the benefit of something we could hardly have imagined even a few weeks ago: a brace of live debates on… Europe. And it all looked so haphazard how it came about.

A seemingly chance remark by the Deputy Prime Minister during his weekly radio phone-in – a challenge thrown out to Nigel Farage - was picked up at once by the UK Independence Party leader, and took on a life of its own. Sky News offered to screen what had seemed set to be a radio debate, at which point the BBC, as the national broadcaster, decided it wanted a slice of the action and a second contest was added.

Thus it came to pass that Farage and Britain’s frustrated Eurosceptic tendency obtained what they had long demanded, but never achieved: a full-dress debate of “the issues”. Europhiles may lament that, by the numbers at least, Nick Clegg’s gamble backfired. He is without doubt an accomplished debater, yet he was still worsted, twice over, according to the instant polls, by the terrier tactics of Farage.

There was a win for the underdog broadcaster, too, as the first debate’s combination of LBC’s Nick Ferrari and Sky News came across as fresher, more modern and less inhibited than the staid old BBC with its elder statesman, David Dimbleby, as moderator. It may be unfair to dwell on a single lapse, but his call to “Nick Farage” seemed to betray a certain tiredness.  

There are glosses you can put on Clegg’s showing that would allow his defeat to be reinterpreted as a sort of victory. The whole enterprise was his initiative. The studio audiences might have been minutely weighted for political balance, but the television audiences would have been self-selecting, and likely to be far more Eurosceptic than Europhile. Then there was the novelty of actually seeing that Farage could hold his own, one on one – surprise for some, vindication for others, but positive for Farage either way.

You could also argue that, in the second debate, Clegg did himself no favours. It appeared that he had taken criticism of his previous performance to heart – that he had won if you listened, but lost if you watched. Did he take remedial TV training before the second round? Or did he just conclude for himself that he needed to appear more animated, more assertive, more commanding? The result was a Clegg so exasperated and pumped up that the facts and sweet reasonableness that drew compliments first time around were less evident at the re-match. How many times must politicians be reminded to be true to themselves? In a world so distorted by spin and media hype, authenticity counts more than ever.

And this is the other message from Clegg v Farage, and perhaps the more significant one. The British always like an insurgent, but the depth of anti-establishment feeling that emerged from this second debate was palpable. The EU may be Ukip’s headline issue, especially as elections for the European Parliament approach, but it masks a clutch of domestic preoccupations, from immigration to the perceived exclusivity and remoteness of the governing class. The more fervently Farage presented himself as the outsider, the louder and warmer the approval. This suggests that whatever gains his party reaps at the European elections may be more transferable to the general election than has hitherto been appreciated.

It also suggests that what has looked at times like a concerted effort by the Conservatives to discredit Ukip by exposing the excesses of its flakier officials could rebound. Flaky may be seen by potential voters as preferable to conformist.

None of this means that Nigel Farage has become overnight a “big beast” of British politics, as some have suggested. A Machiavellian view of the Europe debates might argue the contrary and assign the biggest win of all to one of those who was not there.

David Cameron could cheerfully describe both debaters, as he did yesterday, as “extremists”, and insist that he, Cameron, had “no dog in the fight”. But the fates that forced him into coalition with the pro-Europe Liberal Democrats, and gave him a deputy prime minister who is one of the most articulate Europhiles in the land, can work hugely to Cameron’s advantage. In challenging Farage to duel on a public platform, Clegg has successfully forced Ukip’s arguments into the mainstream and given its leader an opportunity to shine.

Once a victor, though, Nigel Farage may find it harder to convince as the insurgent. So while playing the outsider card still looks like offering him the best prospects beyond the European elections, he is far less of an outsider – thanks to Nick Clegg - than he was.

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